People from all over the world travel to Miami for an evening at chef Kevin Cory’s NAOE. The soft-spoken toque has created something special with his mystique, meticulous methods and exceptional hospitality at his Japanese restaurant, one of only two Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star eateries in Florida. The Brickell Key establishment may be tiny, serving only eight guests at a time omakase style (chef’s choice), but the experiences chef Cory’s team cooks up are colossal. We recently caught up with the culinary magician so he could talk about his latest travels to Japan and the beloved places over there to eat — in his own words.
“I love dining in Japan. Dining in Japan provides a sense of nature, spirituality and camaraderie enhanced by the seasons, architecture, interior design, sincere ichi-go ichi-e (cherishing every encounter as a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence) hospitality and an appreciation for shokunin (“a master craftsman”).
Every year, I try to visit my Japanese family’s hometown, Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture along the Sea of Japan. Kanazawa has rich, variable seasons and sits in the center of Ishikawa on three hills, Utatsuyama, Kodatsuno-dai, and Teramachi-dai, which are divided by two rivers, Asano-gawa and Sai-gawa, starting from the east mountains and flowing west down through the city towards the Sea of Japan. Kanazawa has developed into a charming modern city still promoting its traditional culture with the spirit to respect nature. There’s a saying, onkochishin (learn from the old to create the new). The Kaga-Kanazawa culture comes from the long-time ruling Maeda family, who took nearly two centuries to landscape Kenroku-en, [and] still thrives today.
I would recommend nature enthusiasts to visit the Toyama Prefecture nearby and travel the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which opens every mid-April. The slow Kurobe Gorge Railway is considered to have the best views of Japan. This past March, the Japanese bullet train extension was completed; Hokuriku Shinkansen now connects Tokyo to Toyama and Kanazawa.
Since there are too many great dining establishments to name, here are only some highlights from a recent trip:
En route to Kanazawa, I arrived in Tokyo to visit my aunt, Kiyoshi, and enjoy the big city. After whetting the appetite by window-shopping at Tsukiji, the largest fish market on Earth, my wife and I went for sushi at Sawada in Ginza. With only six revered comfortable counter seats and international acclaim, it’s a very difficult reservation to obtain. The sushi experience at Sawada is magical. The stage for chef Sawada and their humble hospitality is superb. Chef Sawada’s soul goes through his fingers, through his sushi and arrives into your mouth with an impact of euphoria. His wife slices the vegetables with great precision and even designs the napkins.
Obana is an unagi (fresh water eel) specialty restaurant off to the side in the northeast part of Tokyo. There is always a very long line of guests outside. The chefs have dedicated their lives to perfect unagi. The unagi for the main dish is alive until you order and takes about 40 minutes to prepare. Until then, there are unagi-related dishes and great yakitori from these broiling masters.
Nogataya is a very tight eight-seat horumon-yaki restaurant (one of many) in Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho, an old network of alleys of very tiny casual restaurants and dive bars by the Shinjuku Station in Tokyo where alcohol and new friends are found.
From Tokyo, I took a short train ride south to Yugawara Onsen to stay at Sekiyou ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with an onsen (natural hot springs) secluded high atop Mount Wakakusa-yama where a plum fragrance fills the air. Situated between Izu Hakone mountains and the Sagami Bay, Sekiyou’s seafood and mountain vegetables were prepared with the utmost care and delicate balance. Simple is best. However, simple is actually quite complex and very difficult. Sekiyou elegantly offers the epitome of Japanese cuisine.
Finally, we arrive in Kaga to stay in a couple of its 1,300-year-old onsen towns, Yamanaka Onsen and Yamashiro Onsen (hometown for Iron Chef Rokusaburo Michiba). We started in the southernmost town, Yamanaka Onsen, to go just south of the Ishikawa border to Eihei-ji (“Temple of Eternal Peace”) located deep in the wooden hills of Fukui and built in 1244. It is still active and is regarded as the most influential Zen temple in the world. We stayed at Kayotei ryokan (“Seat of Ennoblement”), a collective experience of about 20 local artisans [specializing in everything] from organic foods to wood turning with warm family hospitality. The onsen hotel has mountain land behind them where they grow their own vegetables and unique tea. Kayotei is also at the beginning of a lovely walking trail following the perimeter of Kakusenkei Gorge. On the trail is Kakusenkei Kawadoko, a charming Japanese sweets stand with tatami seating along the river close to the twisting Ayatori Bridge overhead and next to the Fudoji Waterfall.
Jumping north to Yamashiro Onsen, we stayed at Araya Totoan, a revered onsen resort with about 800 years of history passed down through 18 generations, which sits on Yamashiro Onsen’s original hot spring source of internationally acclaimed superior quality water. Many of the rooms have an open-air bath with free-flowing hot water straight from the hot spring source into the room’s Yoshino hinoki (Japanese cypress) bath. The back cottage, Arisugawa-Sanso, was built for the Emperor and now serves as Araya Totoan’s private lounge bar, one of the coolest features of any hotel. Along with the freshness of the seafood from the Hashidate docks soulfully prepared and enjoyed with full-flavored local sake, Araya Totoan’s gensen tamago (hot spring egg) has a luxurious texture. Breakfast will never be the same.
Next up is Komatsu Yasuke in Kanazawa run by the legendary sushi chef Morita Kazuo, who many Japanese say is the best sushi chef of Japan. Perched only two feet away, I never felt so lucky to be front row. At 83, he works like he’s 33. So vibrant, charming and quick, he’s the greatest sushi show on earth. And then, you get to eat his sushi and say, “Wow, it looks abstract with a life expression like no other.” This brief encounter will inspire me for a lifetime. Since Kanazawa has a wide variety of superb local seafood, the cost of Komatsu Yasuke is about one-third of Tokyo, too.
In the mornings, we go for breakfast at Omi-cho Market (a.k.a. Kanazawa’s kitchen) that was established in 1721. There are as many as 170 tiny shops for local seafood, Kaga vegetables and even pickled blowfish roe, a unique local delicacy.
Directly across Omi-cho Market is where my uncle, Yasushi Naoe, first worked as an itamae (head chef) in 1954 at Asadaya ryokan. Open since 1867, it is the most famous ryokan, traditional inn in Kanazawa. There are only five elaborate rooms for guests in order to provide perfect services in accordance with the sukiya style.
On the other side of Kanazawa Castle is Morihachi, a wagashi (Japanese confectionery) shop that’s been open since 1625. It’s also [home to] the Museum of Kanazawa Confectionery Wooden Patterns, with more than 1,000 patterns used since the feudal era. Across the street from Morihachi is the Ohi Museum for Ohi pottery that’s been made by the same family for 11 generations. We use some pottery made by Toshio Ohi with a brilliant and luscious tone at NAOE.
On a hill overlooking Higashi Chaya-gai District serving Kaga-ryori (Kaga-cuisine) in [local pottery like] Rosanjin and Kutani, Yamanoo ryokan has only four guest rooms and has been open since 1890. Kotobukiya is a superb shojin-ryori (Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) and kaiseki restaurant. Experience the up-close pinging sounds of tempura by chef Seijiro Koizumi at the counter of Tempura Koichi in the Kata-machi area and then enjoy after-dinner drinks at Bar Hitoha, [a spot] hidden along the Asano-gawa River in Kazue-machi Geisha District. The revered Tsurukou and Suginoi also serve exquisite nature-themed kaiseki and Kaga-ryori. Hear the temple bells by Suginoi, designated as one of 100 Soundscapes of Japan, in the Tera-machi district and the cicada chorus droning in the Honda-no-Mori Forest near Kenroku-en, also on the 100 list. Otomezushi is a sushi restaurant in the alleys of Kigura-machi. Kazuhiko Tsurumi is the third master (taisho) who directly apprenticed under the first. He makes the most delicate nigirizushi on the highest level.
Just east of Kanazawa in the adjacent prefecture is Toyama, where I was fortunate to rub elbows with my kaiseki chef uncle, Yasushi Naoe. In a country famous for seafood, the fish in Toyama is especially well regarded. Ranked number one on Honshu (Japan’s main island) for its natural vegetation, Toyama is blessed with a beautiful natural environment and has the fewest municipalities of any prefecture in Japan. Toyama’s seafood and agriculture grow between the 4,000 feet depth of Toyama Bay to over [9,842 feet] high on the Hida Mountains with snow walls piling [65 feet] high on Tateyama (one of Japan’s “Three Holy Mountains”) which melts into the farms and provides hydropower at the Kurobe Dam, the tallest dam in Japan. Toyama Bay has an environment where both warm- and cold-water marine life can exist, making it a treasure of marine resources and is known as “Nature’s Fish Tank.” Japanese eat about 180 types of fish, 156 of those are caught in Toyama Bay alone, including Buri (Japanese amberjack only found in the Sea of Japan), Shira-ebi (white shrimp), and millions and millions of bioluminescent hotaru-ika (firefly squid) that come out in spring.”